overview

Between 1968 and 1976, the Continental Baths operated out of the basement space of the then-dilapidated Ansonia Hotel.

The legendary Baths combined sex, socializing, and entertainment that especially flourished during the early post-Stonewall liberation years, and helped launch the careers of numerous performers and DJs.

Header Photo
Credit: Christopher D. Brazee/NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, 2017.

History

In the late 1960s, Steve Ostrow, an entrepreneur and former opera singer, wanted to elevate the gay bathhouse experience from what were then seedy spaces to an enhanced destination as a healthclub and spa. At the time, homosexuality was illegal and most New York City LGBT bars were operated by the Mafia.

In 1968, he leased the vacant 40,000-square-foot, multi-level basement space of the once lavish Ansonia Hotel (then rental apartments), which previously housed its Turkish Baths and swimming pool area. Ostrow predicted that his new venture would draw patrons away from other locations such as the well-established Everard Baths.

Ostrow initially created a space that he advertised as the recreation of the “glory of Ancient Rome.” It featured a disco dance floor, pool with cascading waterfall, sauna rooms, bunk beds in public areas, and small private rooms. When it first opened on September 12, 1968, it contained 50 rooms and 200 lockers and operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Over time, Ostrow added a cabaret and stage, restaurant, gym, licensed bar, STD clinic, clothing boutique, travel desk, and roof sun deck (via a separate elevator) with sand from Riis Beach. Ostrow retained interior designer Richard Ohrbach to oversee this expansion and Ohrbach covered the columns with mirror and glass and painted the walls in psychedelic colors. One large room was transformed into a labyrinth with black marble for cruising. Another large space, referred to as the Orgy Room, was designed as a Roman amphitheater with carpeted risers on the four walls. At its peak, the Baths had 400 private rooms and 2,000 lockers serving up to 10,000 diverse gay male patrons a week, some who would stay for an entire weekend.

“The Tubs,” as they were affectionately nicknamed, were a vital, sexually-liberating alternative to the bar scene during the pre- and post-Stonewall period. Although not operated by the Mafia, Ostrow, employees, and patrons were repeatedly subject to police harassment, including over 200 raids. Gay and the Village Voice covered the discrimination, with the Voice reporting that the ad-hoc gay rights group, the “Committee to End Enticement and Entrapment,” sent a large number of “Put an End to Police Abuse” letters to Mayor Lindsay to protest the harassment.

In the early 1970s, Ostrow took advantage of the popularity of the Baths and introduced live entertainment and DJs. On Saturday nights, live performances of emerging acts and well-known entertainers became a destination spot. Most famously, Bette Midler, nicknamed “Bathhouse Betty,” had her start at the Baths, and was soon joined by her towel-clad piano accompanist Barry Manilow. Others who performed included Peter Allen, Cab Calloway, Lesley GorePaul Jabara, Andy Kaufman, Larry Kert, Labelle, the Manhattan Transfer, Melba Moore, Freda Payne, Phoebe Snow, and Sarah Vaughn. A gay guide book at the time reported that the Contintenal was:

An institution like none other…It seems to me tomorrow they’ll take over the whole Ansonia and then may spread to Lincoln Center. Why not, most of the time the Continental theatre is better!

The Gay Insider/USA, 1972

In 1973, former Metropolitan Opera soprano Eleanor Steber, who lived in the Ansonia, recorded Live at the Continenal Baths, with patrons clad in black towels, in lieu of formalwear; the towels were also featured for sale at Bloomingdales.

Saturday evening performances attracted both an LGBT and straight audience with attendees fully dressed for a Saturday night adjacent to men clad in towels. Some attendees included Bob Fosse, Alfred Hitchcock, Mick Jagger, Rudolf NureyevFrancesco ScavulloLiz SmithValentino, and Andy Warhol.

The Continental Baths was also an incubator space for the development of electronic music. In the early 1970s, it featured the then-unknown DJ Frankie Knuckles (who went on to run the Warehouse in Chicago, the birthplace of house music) and DJ Larry Levan (who went on to run Paradise Garage, the birthplace of garage music).

Its popularity inspired various film and stage productions. The 1975 “Saturday Night at the Baths” was filmed on location, featuring Ostrow and Don Scotti, the then-manager of the Baths. The same year, “The Ritz,” by playwright Terrance McNally and loosely based on the Baths, opened on Broadway (later turned into a film), which was one of the first plays with unapologetic gay characters to reach a mainstream audience.

Over time attendance of the core crowd decreased, some attributing it to the Baths becoming more of an entertainment venue for straight patrons than a place for casual sex, and the facilities grew dilapidated and drug use increased. This coincided with the opening of a number of other gay and gay-friendly dance venues, including Flamingo, the Gallery, and Le Jardin.

In 1976, the Baths officially closed and the following year, Plato’s Retreat, a members-only sex club catering to straight and bisexual couples, opened in the space.

Building Information

  • Architect or Builder: Paul E. M. DuBoy
  • Year Built: 1899-1904

Sources

  1. Dan Avery, “Back To The Continental: The Birthplace Of Bette Midler, House Music And Gay Sex,” blog, Queerty, March 13, 2013, bit.ly/2B9075m.

  2. Ken Herman, “The Continental Baths: The Gay Bathhouse That Birthed Electronic Music Legends,” blog, Splice, June 12, 2019, bit.ly/32hxZcb.

  3. “Continental Baths,” blog, The History of Gay Bathhouses, no date, bit.ly/2qdmFje.

  4. Dan Gentile, “Electric Relaxation: The Continental Baths Birthed NYC Disco and the Careers of Frankie Knuckles and Larry Lavan,” blog, Wax Poetics, May 4, 2016, bit.ly/32roQh6.

  5. John Francis Hunter, The Gay Insider/USA (New York: Stonehill Publishing Company, 1972), 506. [source of pull quote]

  6. Jonathan Black, “The Boys in the Snake Pit: Games ‘Straights’ Play,” Village Voice, March 19, 1970, 61-64.

  7. Steve Ostrow, Live at the Continental: The Inside Story of the World-Famous Continental Baths (New York: Xlibris Corporation, 2007).

Curated Themes

25 Sites

Gay-Owned Businesses

Other Sites in the Neighborhood

170 Central Park West
Portrait of an Unidentified Woman (Lord Cornbury), New-York Historical Society
Cultural & Educational Institutions
Central Park
Emma Stebbins & “Angel of the Waters”
Public Spaces
Lincoln Center
Lincoln Center: Philharmonic Hall
Performance Venues